President Barack Obama is no stranger to global audiences. He has delivered major speeches in Berlin, Prague, and Cairo. But no audience would have been quite so surprised by his words as the dignitaries gathered to hear his Nobel Prize lecture in Oslo last Dec. 10.
In Berlin, the crowds welcomed his pledges of collegial internationalism. People throughout the Muslim world welcomed his call for “a new beginning” in U.S.-Islamic relations at Cairo University as an overture of friendship. The Czechs may have been disappointed at his announcement that an anti-missile installation would not be built on their territory, but the cancellation opened the way to possible progress in nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia. But Obama’s defense of war as a tool of peace in Oslo misread the audience and the occasion.
Coming on the heels of his address on the war in Afghanistan at West Point the same week, the Nobel lecture could not but be received as a philosophical justification of his Afghan strategy. President Obama offered a careful argument that “There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” He chose not to underscore how the principles of just war are intended primarily to prevent and limit conflict rather than to provide easy warrants for war.
Above all, the president failed to treat peacemaking as a distinctive task in its own right. All militaries provide their officers and enlistees with multiple medals and ribbons. Their monuments stand in parks and public squares. The Nobel Peace Prize, however, is the world’s premier award for peacemaking, intended for statesmen and women, activists, and humanitarians who prevent war and bring an end to conflict, establish and maintain institutions that contribute to world peace, or provide care for the victims of conflict and injustice. They include Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela; Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières; Desmond Tutu and Muhammad Yunus. While one may find among their number political leaders who have made the transition from war to peace, such as Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, the exceptions have always been cited for their making peace, not their warmaking.
With his focus on war, the president overlooked many of the novel developments that have contributed to peacemaking in the last generation: the emergence of humanitarian intervention as a legitimate activity of the international community and inclusion of “the responsibility to protect” (R2P) in international law; the use of domestic and international tribunals to try the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity; the spread of truth and reconciliation commissions, the new-found acceptability of apology and forgiveness in international affairs, and the work of specialists in promoting post-conflict reconciliation and forgiveness at the grassroots level; the popular exercise of nonviolence in facilitating democratic change; the recognition that organized religion can and does play a positive role in the transformation of conflict; and the growth of professional specialists in conflict resolution and peacebuilding among nongovernmental organizations, especially those working in situations of ethnic and religious conflict.
What the president missed is that peacemaking activities now help define the terrain of conflict once marked out only by the military. Just war cannot be conceived today apart from them. Indeed, just war today, especially in the church circles that have kept it alive, is only a coda to nonviolent alternatives to conflict. It was the practitioners of these alternatives to war who deserved the spotlight at Oslo. Those institutions and activities merited support from President Obama’s bully pulpit.
Father Drew Christiansen is editor-in-chief of the Jesuit weekly America. He served for 14 years as foreign policy adviser to the United States Catholic Conference.